Whatever else you can call Chilean President Sebastián Piñera—arrogant, ultraconservative, a onetime chum of dictator Augusto Pinochet, his enemies have said it all—aversion to risk-taking is not one of his faults. That fact was made more than clear during the dramatic rescue of the 33 miners, every moment of which Piñera oversaw like a field marshal on the front. No sooner had the miners stumbled from the Phoenix elevator capsule, ending their two months’ confinement in a mineshaft 622 meters below the Atacama Desert, than they fell straight into the bear hug of the beaming Chilean engineer in chief, kitted out in helmet and workman’s overalls.
For many Chileans, it was one more confirmation that they had put the right man in the Palacio de la Moneda—a take-charge executive dedicated to flag and country right down to dirt level. To his detractors, it was just a shameless stunt by a grandstanding pol who had no business playing politics at the scene of a near disaster, much less upstaging the reunion of anxious loved ones. Whatever the verdict, Piñera’s presence was a gamble of colossal proportions.
Disaster and politics make a volatile cocktail, as risky as it is tempting. A successful rescue can create an instant hero, bathing a leader in glory before a global audience. But a bungled operation, an outright tragedy, or even dubious behavior by a national leader while the world is watching can just as quickly cripple a government and bury a political career.
Washington’s confused and hesitant response to Hurricane Katrina helped poison the Bush administration’s relations with the media and voters. The popular but divisive former Thai president Thaksin Shinawatra won accolades for his handling of relief efforts after the 2004 Asian tsunami, but is also remembered for trying to suppress news about the outbreak of bird flu the year before. (Toppled in a coup in 2006, he was convicted, in absentia, of corruption charges earlier this year.)
Dozens of wannabe politicians, including 19 presidential hopefuls (hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean among them), emerged from the rubble of last year’s earthquake in Haiti, moved by patriotism perhaps but also surely the chance to command a budget flush with billions of dollars in relief money.
Piñera himself had not even taken office when a massive earthquake devastated Chile on Feb. 27, but he quickly earned the confidence of Chileans by orchestrating a speedy and efficient relief effort. Since then, he has not fared so well. His popularity ratings dropped from 58 percent to 53 percent since August, due in part to the fallout from a three-month prison hunger strike by 34 Mapuche Indians, who demanded that Piñera press Congress to revoke a law subjecting indigenous people to an antiterrorism statute, a practice dating to the Chilean dictatorship. Piñera’s approval rating also took a hit for the initial delays in organizing the rescue of the miners trapped in the San José mine, and the family of one miner, Raúl Bustos, filed a lawsuit against the government and mineshaft operators for negligently reopening the mine after an accident in 2008.
In politics, of course, one man’s inferno can be another’s phoenix. And while Piñera’s popularity has sagged through the mining ordeal, ironically, that of his mining minister, Laurence Golborne, soared to 87 percent. “Golborne Superstar” a gossip magazine dubbed him, while the Chilean press is already buzzing over a possible run for the presidency in 2014.